What is the proper reaction when you’re sixty-one, and someone you went to high school with tells you during dinner at a lovely upscale restaurant that your mother ran naked down the street in your home town? I’ll tell you what it is. You say “my, this fish is delicious”, as your brain scrambles to recall just what else might have happened if this is the conversation starter during the entree. While we chatted about old times and all the fun we had in the marching band, in my mind was the same thing one sees when watching a smart TV–that little box in the lower right hand corner playing the movie you’d rather be watching while you’re reluctantly tuned in to the breaking news to find out if the president induced the apocalypse in the time it took you to drag the trash down the driveway and straighten up the car after a hectic day at work. “This asparagus is steamed to perfection”, little box in the corner with my mother running naked on a continuous loop, and “I so love the fact that they bring warm artisan bread to the table before the menu arrives”, little box in the corner with my mother running naked on a continuous loop, and “do you remember that I used to bring a book to the Friday night football games, because I didn’t like sports but loved playing the trumpet on the field?”, little box in the corner with my mother running naked on a continuous loop, well, you get the idea. And the dinner was lovely, everything about it was good–the food, the company, the well-educated servers working their way through college, eager to describe the tiramisu in their best Yale language, and it all went so fast that I didn’t even have time to be embarrassed.
Well, when I got home, I had plenty of time to mull over this latest bit of news about my own family, one that surpassed the story I already knew about my mother running out into the street in her orange bathrobe, screaming for her father in a psychotic delirium. As it happens, the orange bathrobe reappeared one Halloween when my older brother sat deathly still in it on the porch wearing a wig, and when the kids came up the stairs he LEAPED off the chair, throwing candy in their sacks, and laughing. Frankly, the mere sight of that tattered thing gave me the shivers, and Halloween never appealed to me as a child. Being scared was the only way I knew how to be, and people charging around the streets with masks on made me that much less trusting of what might be hidden, and I was always glad when the lights came back on and we kids traded candy on the living room floor. My father would watch, occasionally grabbing a Snickers, saying “I’d better see if that one’s okay”, the same way he did when I’d get an ice cream cone, and I fell for it every time, thinking, “how nice that my daddy makes sure my ice cream is safe”, when all he wanted was the best part of the cone–the little swirl that the summer help at Dairy Queen had perfected while earning money for a new bike.
It turns out that what I thought was a well-kept secret in our small suburban town was actually common knowledge, that there was “instability in the home”, as one woman kindly phrased it. No. Instability is what occurs when the temperature drops suddenly before a thunderstorm, and you run outside to bring in the toys you left scattered on the lawn. Instability is not an adequate term for the chaos that reigned at our house for many, many years, and now I’m doing a bit of mental re-evaluation of the time I lived and went to school in a conservative western suburb of the emerald city known as Cleveland, where the most colorful thing I was ever likely to see were the flags lining the street on Fourth of July weekend, in a nod to patriotism and all things American. The main, and one of only two east-west streets, led to the “center’, as we called it, where there was a carnival every year with fireworks, and people used to gather for concerts and popcorn, and those just out of high school came back to see what the rest of us were doing while they were practicing a different kind of independence than the holiday represented. All those years of expending excess energy to keep my secrets close and quietly attending school, never late, never absent (except for the mumps–and I only got one just to save time), not speaking up in class, turning in every assignment, and finishing high school somewhere near the respectable middle of the class, all that effort spent making myself invisible so no one would ask me what I’d had for dinner, because we ate at McDonald’s most nights, could have been better spent in other ways.
If I had only known what everyone else knew, that my mother wasn’t up to the task of raising children, or cleaning floors, or making lunch, or hanging precious crayon drawings on the refrigerator, the small details that make growing up a smooth ride instead of a bumpy, winding road through the hills and valleys of mental illness, not spoken of in the 1960’s and -70’s, only in hushed tones and around other people’s dinner tables. Our dinner table was piled high with whatever ended up there at the end of the day. And once in a great while my mother would declare, “everyone had better put their stuff away, or it’s going out on the lawn with the garbage”, except we would only find out later that she made the announcement to no one in particular while we were at school, and THAT explained where the baseball mitts, and Barbie dolls, and frisbees, and all the other childhood accessories must have gone when we went looking and couldn’t find them. What never got thrown out was the compressed stack of dirty clothes in the chute running from the communal upstairs bathroom to the basement, where another kind of mother would have taken it out and washed it on “laundry day”, which I learned was a real thing from the endless stream of books I read. When we ran out of clean clothes, we went to Uncle Bill’s department store and bought more, although occasionally my little grandmother took a bus from her house to ours, to create order out of the wreckage, and leave us as stealthily as she came, never with a word of criticism for the daughter she had so lovingly raised, and she must have wondered herself what had happened, since no explanation was ever offered to us or to her.
We lived in a small ranch on the corner, smack in between the school psychiatrist and the guidance counselor, which makes me wonder what exactly would have had to happen for them to schedule a home visit on a street where nothing went unnoticed, including tree branches that hung less than the requisite eight feet from the sidewalk, lest the postman should catch his cap while delivering the mail. So many rules were in place to keep the city tidy and up to code, so that the people who came looking for a nice place to raise a family would be suitably impressed by the closely cropped green lawns and freshly painted houses standing side by side, near enough to hear a stereo playing with the window open, but not close enough to notice that the little kids next door were making their own breakfast and lunch while their mother slept the day through, unable to function well enough to handle her three offspring, and the father left promptly at 7 a.m. sharp to get to his corporate job downtown. Our lawn certainly wasn’t green, as when the weekend came, our family was off hunting antiques or spending a Saturday at the art museum or library, the only two places I can ever remember going where we never had a conflagration of some sort, and I’m glad, because those two places are still a refuge for me as an adult, and it’s nice to have places to go that have no dark memories, because the world is fraught with those, and I need books and beauty for balance.
So, after two days of FREAKING OUT at the thought of so many of my friends and teachers and God knows who else being aware that our little abode wasn’t home to an “artistic” collection of humans, but rather a cluster of children and adults trying to make their way through life unaided, with the father being the mother, the breadwinner, and the entertainer, roles he played with such elan, that we didn’t even know that there was any other way to live. He made our lives so much fun that I guess it made up for the discomfort I felt when my friends would take turns saying “we could go to my house and play”, over and over, and when it came my turn, I would always have a fit of coughing or suddenly remember I had to go home and take the dog out, even though we rarely had a dog for more than a few weeks before it, too, became a casualty of neglect and had to be returned from whence it came. Lucky for the dog, but unlucky for the kids who thought there might be fun to be had before Daddy came home to rescue us. I’m not exactly sure at all what my brothers thought of this situation, because even WE never talked about it, and now one of them is dead much too young, and the other is off somewhere living his own life without ever contacting the sister who helped raise him, since he was the last child, and younger enough that I could help him get ready for school so Mom could stay in bed. I’d scoot him out the door without making any noise, the better to start my own school day without even seeing my mother, because seeing her always startled me, and I’m starting to understand why.
My childhood wasn’t all bad, and I wouldn’t want anyone to think I’m feeling sorry for myself, because at this point I’ve decided that each little episode that went into making me what I am today added a dash of color or pique or curiosity that causes me to examine my existence and that of others through a rather different lens than the average person sports on any given day. My father lent me his wry sense of humor and modeled for me a way of living that makes the trains run on time and the bills get paid before the statement arrives in the mail. The two sides of our family were polar opposites–the bohemian one threw in the extra seasoning while the half from the British Isles gave me my rigid protestant work ethic. That peculiar melange allows me to get to work on time and complete my tasks, no matter how ruffled I may feel, with a smile on my face, always with some memory or other of a time my father made me laugh at myself for being myself, a self that is still incubating in an adult body. I NEVER thought picturing my mother running naked in Bay Village would be funny, but, sure enough, within 48 hours of finding out what made the previous 48 hours almost unbearable, I was able to tell the story, hardly able to contain my own laughter, and knowing that whatever comes my way in the future, I’m at least content knowing I may have heard THE most dissembling thing possible. Maybe. I’m not placing any bets on that, because my mother may have spent a weekend I know not where, and some other kind person may have some morsel under his hat, just waiting for the right moment to spring it on me, when hopefully I won’t have a mouthful of something that will spray out during another pleasant meal in an upscale neighborhood in the city where I live now. Isn’t it grand that I don’t have to covet the house I used to live in any more, checking realtor.com to see if it’s for sale in the hopes that some day I might be able to buy it back? I’ve decided I like living in a town that never met my mother. It’s not the worst thing in the world to have met your shadow and learned to dance with it. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.